How the mighty have fallen
Zhang Jiuling experienced a fall from power. Once high counselor to the Emperor Xuanzong, possessing the honorific title of Count Wenxian of Shixing, he found himself the subject of palace intrigue, and, by 737, demoted and sent to distant Jingzhou (荆州), on the banks of the Yangtze River, in Hubei, China.
Zhang died three years later, but not before giving us his thoughts on his fall from his lofty perch.
Thoughts, First of Four
A lonely swan comes from the sea
Not daring to land on lake or pond
Looking aside, he spies a pair of kingfishers
Nesting on a three-pearled tree
Bravely resting at the tree’s summit
Have they no fear of slingshots?
Beautiful clothes invite pointing fingers
And, the high and wise face an evil god
For what is there for hunters to admire?
Original Chinese Characters
Gǎn yù sì shǒu zhī yī
gū hónghǎi shànglái
chí huáng bù gǎn gù
cè jiàn shuāng cuì niǎo
cháo zài sān zhūshù
jiǎo jiǎo zhēn mù diān
dé wú jīnwán jù
měi fú huàn rén zhǐ
gāomíng bī shén è
yì zhě hé suǒ mù
Thoughts on Thoughts by Zhang Jiuling
Philosophers and poets imagine themselves as solitary swans (孤 鴻) flying high above the earth. They come from far away places, (海上來, coming from the sea) to serve the emperor. (Zhang himself was born in Guangdong, South China province, on the coast of the South China Sea.)
Having come from such a great body of water, how can the swan satisfy himself with a mere lake or pond?
The brightly colored kingfisher is common in China. Its colorful plumage makes it a popular subject of paintings, no doubt, looked at and admired greatly by an adoring public. The Three Pearl Tree (三珠樹) is a specific reference beyond my ability to identify. If I had to make an educated guess, it would be the Chinese Pearl-Bloom Tree with its beautiful white flowers.
The world is possessed of both good spirits and bad spirits. It is the bad spirits who admire (慕, admire, long for, desire) and hunt the high and the mighty (高明, literally those who are high and wise, clear-sighted). It is tempting to say “high and mighty” but that doesn’t quite express Zhang’s belief that one’s highest duty to the emperor is to behonest.